Kahn's Fine Wines

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Varietal vs. Regional

Posted 4:59 PM by

American Wine: Bourbon::European Wine: Single Malt Scotch

Thank you for checking back in with Kahn's Fine Wines.  Just for fun, I thought I’d start off today’s discussion with an SAT style analogy. Admittedly, I would be curious to know how many SAT takers would be able to fill in the blank here if I excluded one of the terms.  Hard-core wine people can find numerous exceptions to the logic implied in the analogy above, but all analogies eventually break down at some point, so I think I’m ok with that. 

The gist: American wines and Bourbon require varietal knowledge, whereas European wines and Single Malt Scotches require regional knowledge.

So what do American wine and Bourbon have in common?

American wine and Bourbon labels place less importance on place of origin than varietal or style.

American wine and Bourbon are both products of a varietal culture.  American wine consumers are pleased to see labels graced with their favorite varietal and are often confused (rightly so) by European wine labels that only list the appellation and omit the grapes in the wine.  Can you imagine if a producer in Napa Valley just put the word Napa on the label and didn’t tell the consumer what grapes he used to produce the wine?  It would be unheard of.  Part of the reason is that numerous grapes are grown in places like Napa Valley.  Napa simply doesn’t imply a single grape or combination of grapes like Cote de Beaune in Burgundy, because grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grow in Napa.  Here’s an example of a typical American wine label.  Note the presence of the varietal name.



Bourbon is similar to American wine because it really is an “American whisky varietal.” The word Bourbon does not imply place of origin.  Consider that the grains to produce Bourbon are sourced from numerous U.S. states.  While many people believe that Bourbon has to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky they might be shocked to know that no Bourbon is made in Bourbon County.  In fact, Bourbon can be made in any U.S. state.

American wine and Bourbon are functions of the American varietal culture where varietal is more important that place.

European wine and Single Malt Scotch are different.

Let’s say you stumble into the French aisle at Kahn’s and tell a blonde-haired wine dude that you’d like a Chardonnay that’s big, rich and buttery.  He might pick up a bottle that says the word Meursault and tell you that “if you like rich, full-bodied, buttery Chardonnay then you’ll love this.  It’s Chardonnay from France, and Meursault is a village in the Cote de Beaune, which is located in Burgundy.”

This is when the shock sets in. You’re probably thinking: “Who in the hell is this guy and how does he know that Meursault is Chardonnay, and more importantly, why doesn’t the label say the word Chardonnay if there’s Chardonnay in there?”  Here’s a typical European wine label.  Notice how big the region is and also notice the absence of any mention of varietal…

It doesn’t say Chardonnay because the producers want you to associate the wine in the bottle with a place, not a grape.  Walk through any wine shop and find the sections for Italy, France, or Spain.  You’ll see one theme repeat itself over and over: no grape names on labels.  There are exceptions, like Alsace, of course, but in general, European wineries want consumers to know that their wines come from a certain region.  The actual grape names are much less important than in the New World. 

Does this hurt their sales in the United States and many other New World countries?  Of course, but many wineries will never change—proof that tradition is still alive and well.

So American wineries labels have the grape names on them and European wines have the region…what about the whisky side of the analogy?

If you purchase a whisky that says the word bourbon on the label, you can be reasonably certain that it will taste similar to other whiskies you have purchased whose label also sported the word bourbon.  This is not true for Single Malt Scotch.

Single Malt Scotch, like European wine requires regional knowledge.

Take a look at these two labels.  One is from the Highlands while the other is from Islay.  Let me assure you, they taste completely different.

 

Highland Scotches are rich, round, fruity with cereal notes, toasted nuts and toffee flavors whereas Islay Scotches are generally full-bodied, smoky and peaty with iodine and seaweed flavors. 

The point is that there are times for both whisky styles and both wine styles, but before you go shopping make sure that you are armed with the proper knowledge to deal with the choices presented to you.

If you really enjoy European wines and are interested in trying a whisky you might enjoy, try Glenfarclas 12 yr.

Just remember: American wines and Bourbon require varietal knowledge, whereas European wines and Single Malt Scotches require regional knowledge…and everything will be alright…

 

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